In a corner of the country known for its Victorian seaside towns, an almighty row about schools has been brewing – one involving gangs, combative academy chiefs, drugs and predictions of fatal pupil stabbings.
While this battle may be raging in Kent, it reflects much wider national concerns about the admissions system, inclusion, academy’s powers, their accountability and how we treat our most vulnerable pupils.
The backdrop to this was framed in a Tes national investigation earlier this year, revealing how long children in care were being forced to wait for a school place after headteachers – disproportionately from academies – rejected their applications (“Children in care forced to wait nearly a year for a school place”).
We highlighted Thanet, a relatively deprived district in coastal Kent, as an area where such moves were being contested. Academy heads at the five-school Coastal Academies Trust have stated that vulnerable children from outside the county should not be moved into their area by social workers – or attend their schools – because of the sexual grooming and gang warfare that they say is rife locally.
Since then, that local conflict has erupted. A national newspaper quoted a Thanet grammar school head – he says wrongly – as warning that gangs were trying to recruit his pupils as drugs mules, and that police had told him a fatal stabbing was likely “within 12 months”. But children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi has publicly hit back at the heads, accusing them of “scaremongering”.
Meanwhile, the prospective pupils caught in the middle of this war of words have been branded “problem children”, and many are still left without a school place.
Early next month, Zahawi, along with heads and virtual school heads – who oversee the education of looked-after children – will gather for what is set to be a fiery meeting to discuss what should happen next.
At the same time, two influential Commons committees are exploring the difficulties faced by looked-after children in accessing school across England. How this plays out could affect not only the hundreds of looked-after children placed in Kent each year but also those fighting for school places across the country.
And now an analysis of official data, conducted by children’s homes, which appears to challenge some of the headteachers’ key arguments, has been shared with Tes.
So does this new evidence stack up? Are the headteachers right to stand firm in light of what they say is a major safeguarding issue? And what does this increasingly ugly conflict say about our wider education system?
The analysis, compiled by the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA), examines official crime statistics to assess the risk to pupils allegedly posed by gangs in different areas. It concludes that cross-county gangs are a “nationwide” problem, but are “not specific to any county”.
The national nature of the problem is hard to dispute. Kent heads are far from alone in worrying about the high number of looked-after children being shunted around the country. In 2014, the Commons Education Select Committee called for an end to unnecessary out-of-area placements. Michael Gove, then education secretary, said children were being sexually exploited by gangs after being “decanted” away from friends and family.
Nevertheless, out-of-area placements of looked-after children have continued to rise. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of children placed in children’s homes out of area increased by 64 per cent. In Thanet, the total number of such placements grew from 193 to 240 in a single year between 2016 and 2017.
Ministers appear to accept that they remain necessary. In a parliamentary answer last month, Zahawi wrote: “While we recognise that there can be challenges in school admissions for looked-after children, particularly where they are placed out of their own areas, these placements play an important part of meeting the needs of children in care.
“This is an issue that the government takes incredibly seriously – and we want to reduce out-of-area placements and make sure children are properly protected and able to thrive.”
Sally Kelly, chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads, says it is “patronising” of heads to question decisions made by social workers in the best interests of children. Decisions on where to place children are, inevitably, also driven by the fact that there is a national shortage of foster carers, she adds.
Regardless of the reasons behind these moves, children are entitled to an education as well as a safe home environment. Rather than taking a stand against perceived problems with the care system, should heads just focus on the educational needs of those in their catchment areas – particularly those most in need?
This is what Zahawi implied when he appeared on the BBC TV show Sunday Politics South East last month. Criticising the Kent headteachers’ stance, he said: “To do the right thing for the child is the most important thing. Nationally, we have a moral duty to do that, whether you’re a school in Thanet or a school in any other part of the country.”
For their part, the heads argue that they are fulfilling this moral duty towards the child – by discouraging councils from moving children to areas where they will be unsafe.
The strong opinions involved in this debate are reflected in the type of language used.
Last month, Craig Mackinlay, Conservative MP for South Thanet, said on live radio that London boroughs needed to be told to “take responsibility”, adding: “You cannot just land your problem children – sadly they are, they come with problems, that’s why they’re looked-after children – you can’t just land them in Kent.” Headteachers were “at the sharp end” of this, he continued, and their concerns “do need to be recognised”.
Others have complained of Thanet being a “dumping ground for London’s problems” – an unfortunate metaphor in a discussion about vulnerable children (“Don’t tell us we’re ‘dumping’ vulnerable children on you, virtual heads tell school leaders”).
The ICHA report poses a factual challenge to these claims, saying that around 37 per cent of all looked-after children placed in Kent have been sent there by other local authorities – a smaller proportion than in 96 out of 152 authorities. It adds that the majority of placements in Thanet are made by Kent County Council itself, stating: “This would suggest that Thanet is recognised by [the council] as a good place for looked-after children to live.” The council has confirmed these figures are accurate but did not comment further.
While statistics can shed some light on the situation, it is the tone of the debate here that is perhaps most telling. Kelly condemns the “despicable” way that looked-after children are being depicted. “After everything they’ve been through, to talk about them in this way is just absolutely outrageous,” she says.
Without downplaying the many barriers that these children have to overcome, could it be that low societal expectations – typified by Mackinlay’s words – are not helping them to scale the attainment ladder either?
Less than a third (32 per cent) of looked-after children left primary having met the expected standard in reading, writing and maths in 2017 – nearly half the national figure. And fewer than one in five achieved a grade 4 GCSE in both English and maths last year, compared with 59 per cent of pupils overall.
Still, lumping all looked-after children into one category is unhelpful, Kelly argues: “Headteachers are rejecting applications before they know anything about the child other than that they’re looked-after – it’s discriminatory.” If disabled children were treated in the same way, there would be a public outcry, she adds.
Local authorities have no direct power to force academies to accept looked-after children, even though they have priority for places under the statutory school admissions code. While the Department for Education can step in, at least one multi-academy trust has simply refused to obey its orders. For some, the way this case has been dealt with raises serious questions about the school accountability system.
So does the admissions code need to be strengthened? The DfE’s permanent secretary, Jonathan Slater, was asked this very question by Liberal Democrat shadow education secretary Layla Moran at a Public Accounts Committee hearing in May. Moran revealed that a looked-after child in Oxfordshire was out of school for “nearly six months” after being rejected by an academy.
Slater replied: “Clearly we would be concerned in those sorts of circumstances.” But allowing local authorities to direct academies to accept particular pupils would require a change in the law, he added. And such a move would be out of step with the government’s stated desire for academies to be autonomous.
The wide-ranging tensions in this row demonstrate that what appears superficially to be a purely regional concern is anything but. Across the country, schools are finding that more and more looked-after children are moving to their areas from elsewhere. Meanwhile, gangs are expanding drugs networks and trying to recruit vulnerable pupils. And tensions between local authorities and academies are not going away.
While these trends will affect different areas to varying extents, it may well take a national debate to ensure that the children at the heart of this conflict have the same access to education that their peers often take for granted.